I love going on walks with my family. The other day, we walked down our long driveway, hand-in-hand. My 20-month-old gripped my finger with her left hand and her older brother's hand in her right as her boot-covered feet stomped forward. As we walked, I had to bend down to keep my hand in hers, and walked with a dawdling pace to remain parallel. There were moments where I began to walk ahead as she got distracted, slowed, or stopped in her trajectory. I had to continue to guide her by inviting her to follow me.
I was pacing-then-leading.
This is discipleship.
I first heard the term pacing-then-leading in Richard Dunn's fantastic book, Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students. It's stuck with me as the perfect image of what the process of discipleship looks like in youth ministry.
A good metaphor for pacing-then-leading is traveling on a hike together: the loving adult—who has traveled farther in their spiritual journey—steps back to pace alongside a student at their pace, experiencing the spiritual journey with them and listening for the Spirit’s guiding voice. Along the way, the adult leads the student towards Jesus, pointing out important spiritual vistas, watching for pitfalls, and helping the student stay on the right path. They walk towards Jesus together, requiring patience and willingness on the part of the adult to stay alongside the student and lead them closer to Christ.
Pacing-then-leading is an intentional and dynamic process of discipleship without becoming programmatic or static. Instead of a one-size-fits-all discipleship program, pacing-then-leading allows for adults to listen for the Spirit's voice and guide a young person at their own unique pace. For instance, a student I once discipled wanted to read through the entire New Testament in one semester in order to better understand his faith and how it compared/contrasted to Mormonism. Another student in the same grade and youth group was struggling with being honest and not stealing from others. Two guys, same age, same group, but vastly different discipleship approaches. Pacing-then-leading allowed me to discern where each of them was at present, and where God wanted to guide them in the next step of their spiritual journey.
If we just pace with students, we become their big buddy. We're just their friend, walking alongside them, but without direction or intentionality. They like us a lot, but our spiritual lives literally might be going in circles. This is the adult leader who likes hanging out with students, but rarely has spiritual conversations with them, and lacks purpose and direction.
If we just lead students, we become the aloof educator. We're standing farther along the path, yelling at them to catch up to us. We make them do Bible studies or pray or attend retreats, but we're not with them; we're just telling them what to do and where to go in their spiritual walk. This is the Sunday School teacher who is giving the right information, but absent of relationship and listening for God's voice in the process.
Pacing-then-leading means we're with and for students. We're their advocates, guides, coaches, champions, sounding-boards, and place-sharers. It's what Jesus practiced with His disciples, and He calls us to do the same.